THIS IS YOUR DEATH (2017)
Directed by Giancarlo Esposito
Horror and reality TV share a common ground. Each is often viewed with snobbery, and the worst of both see makers compete to push the envelope to new points of crassness. Director Giancarlo Esposito (best known as Chicken-dealing drug lord Gus in Breaking Bad) explores this parallel with a gory lampoon of trash telly in This Is Your Death (aka The Show).
This satirical horror follows TV personality Adam Rogers (Duhamel) whom we first meet hosting a shoddy wedding show that goes violently wrong. Off the back of this, and an on air meltdown (with an odd cameo by James Franco), he is quickly persuaded to front a show that really tests the boundaries – but on the condition he can do it with integrity and make something ‘real’. This aim doesn’t last and in a darker version of The X Factor (complete with sob story videos), participants are invited to kill themselves on live TV for the grand prize: a large donation to a cause they hold dear to themselves. As viewing figures skyrocket, pulling the flagging network back to the top, the vindicated Rogers develops delusions of grandeur and pushes his dubious premise further and further. In a second story we see the other side of the show. Mason (Esposito) is a down on his luck dad, struggling to make ends meet. We follow his journey as he does everything he can to protect his family, but when he just can’t cut a break, he goes from deploring the show, thinking it exploitative, to pondering applying for it. Pretty grim, right?
Whether it’s playing with conventions in Funny Games, or Cabin in The Woods’s sneering third act soliloquy about sameness, horror films have often engaged with their audience. Often this is done by commenting upon their complicity in the entertainment they are viewing. But rarely have questions of taste taken centre stage to this extent. Several times the film berates its audience for watching, asking ‘what have we become?’ Yet the flash presentation, classic narrative structure and elaborate deaths are done without any of the irony or self-awareness to afford it this level of moralizing. For instance, the deaths themselves are excellently staged, with an interesting performance art style about them, but the gratuitousness isn’t flippant enough to make the point intended. This is particularly true about a have-your-cake-and-eat-it moment towards the end, which sees the film caught between entertaining and enlightening its audience before taking the worst option.
While the filmmakers don’t shy away from the tough themes, the decision to tell the story dramatically through the host’s moral decline leaves you feeling a brilliant satirical concept has been squandered. It comes very close to working, with some great twists as he gets tested. Duhamel also does a good job with the material he’s given, playing Adam with a hairsprayed veneer, until letting the cracks start to show. But when the smirk gives way for sanctimony in the third act, it’s hard to stay invested in his arc. Given that he’s willing to exploit others so fast I expect most people won’t warm to him enough to find his lapse challenging. The subplot with Esposito is more successfully handled, with a great performance, even if he’s the sort of flawless Gary Stu character defined entirely by victimhood. But frustratingly it borders on a melodrama, not dissimilar to the contestant tales it mocks, and is eventually undermined by another, more personal, thread that develops towards the end. Elsewhere, Prison Break’s Sarah Wayne Callies is great as a moral foil, even if she feels underused. Famke Janssen is on form as icy exec Ilana: a devil on the shoulder whose ratings-chasing immorality is in line with the subject’s absurdity. Sylvia (FitzGerald) has a mixed role as an angel, both hating the idea, yet too happily going along with it.
The balance between black comedy satire and heavy handed preaching may have been better achieved if the film were told from the participants’ perspective, via some sort of diary narrative. Such an approach would have more readily allowed for a mixed tone, with a combo of people in it for the right or wrong reasons. It also could have helped overcome the contradiction of a movie celebrating life whilst simultaneously relegating depression and suicide to the level of shameless plot device. This is not to say This Is Your Death is a bad film, given that it’s well paced, creative and certainly has some very clever moments. But as per the little remembered Jerry Springer vehicle Citizen Verdict, or this year’s Immigration Game, a stellar premise is wasted with a delivery that is both too po-faced for black comedy and too ridiculous to be taken as seriously it is. Maybe, fittingly, it’s best thought of as a guilty pleasure.